Life of a
20th Century Explorer
G.V. Desani was born in Nairobi, Kenya, July 8, 1909 to Indian parents. He had a modest formal education, no college, never married, and has no known descendants or surviving relations. Yet during a long and productive life, G.V. Desani helped define modern and post-modern English and Indian literature and secure the stature of Anglo-Indian writers. Later, as a columnist and educator, Desani made unique contributions to world religions by describing the relationship and commonality between Indian bhakti and guru traditions and the Buddha's traditional Theravada teachings on Vipassana meditation. Along the way he provided a million-or-so-words of cultural and social commentary and many world-class short stories.
When Desani was about five his family returned to their home in Shikārpur, Sindh, India (now Southeast Pakistan). In those days Sindh was a secular and religious crossroads filled with Hindu, Muslim and Sufi adherents and practitioners. The diverse garbs and outdoor practitioners (including so-called "naked ascetics") must have been fascinating to a bright, curious boy.
The boy, Govind, was considered a prodigy, but difficult, by grammar school teachers and a naïve dreamer by his merchant-class family. Once his father, beyond frustration with his boy's independent airs, demanded to know his career intentions: Would he go into the family business? "I like books," Desani shot back. "Books, books?" his father sputtered, "I'll buy you a bookstore!" Another anecdote: "Boy, you don't understand," Desani was told by a favorite aunt, upon informing her that he would go to England and become famous. "You don't even know English!"
Desani ran away from home several times. One incident which may have led to his final, dramatic escape gesture, was being sent, with a bodyguard/servant, on an ox-drawn cart through the Indian countryside to collect business debts for his father, a wood merchant. Soon thereafter, Desani somehow found his way onto a steamer headed for the U.K. He arrived in Great Britain at 17 with 40 pounds Sterling (and no English).
After his first chilled-to-the-bone London winter (to keep from freezing Desani stuffed newspaper into a second-hand overcoat), he somehow — and quickly — made his mark on the world's preeminent city. Attractive, brilliant, charismatic, brimming with vitality and self-confidence, the young Indian was befriended by, among others, George Lansbury, a prominent member of the British parliament. His patron arranged for Desani to have access to the British Museum and its fabled reading room.
Gifted with a rare knack for engendering immediate, unbridled enthusiasm in acquaintances and total strangers, Desani was so often interrupted by fellow rooming house residents that he borrowed money from each, paying them back only when he was ready to move on.
For the next 20 or so years Desani, ever the intrepid traveler, sailed frequently between India and England. He took bit parts in early silent films. He worked in England as a stringer for Indian newspapers and in India as a stringer for British newspapers. He did a stint as headmaster of the same grammar school from which he had once been expelled. (According to Desani, he had the unfortunate duty of relieving from his post the headmaster who had once expelled him.) He gave lectures in India and England on Indian antiquities. Always a seeker, Desani was fascinated by the diversity of the "socio-religio" (to quote Hatterr) underpinnings of Britain's vast colony.
By happenstance, Desani arrived back in England just before Great Britain entered World War II. In those days, independence-minded partisans in India and their supporters in the U.K. saw the war as an opportunity for India to press for independence. In response, the British Broadcasting Service (BBC) produced wartime radio broadcasts highlighting positive aspects of India's bond with England. Desani, in his mid-30s, was by then a reliable member of the Establishment. He became a BBC-sponsored lecturer and radio commentator. He took part in educational programs in Hindi and English which described India's heritage and discussed its place in the modern world. A favorite anecdote of Desani's was the time he spoke to inmates of the Barlinnie high-security prison in Scotland. "I remember the governor, Mr. Mayo, introducing me, as if it was yesterday…. (I) greeted them with, 'So glad to see so many of you here today….' " The remark bought down the (jail) house.
Desani's only known surviving lecture/broadcast from the period is India Invites. It was initially read at New College, Oxford in 1941. In addition to Desani, BBC war commentators included T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster. A key organizer of the effort was George Orwell, later to author1984 and Animal Farm. During the war, Desani's bookish ambitions flowered. He learned to write English and to "learn me grammer". After many revisions his literary efforts gelled into what he dryly called a gesture. Notably, as Desani observed in his introduction to All About H. Hatterr, there was no market for gestures, only for novels. Later he learned that even the market for gestures described as novels (or vice versa) was hardly robust.
Publication of All About H. Hatterr
After being turned down by more than a few publishers, and copy edited more than a few times, All About Mr. Hatterr, as it was originally titled, was copyrighted and published in 1948 by Francis Aldor. The book was an immediate sensation and attended with rave reviews. Hatterr was also very favorably received in the U.S. and India. Over the next 40 years, Desani was to revise or expand his beloved novel at least four times. Editions continue to be printed, the most recent authorized edition is from Aleph Classics, New Delhi (2018).
Hatterr made grand fun of all manner of social structure, stricture, status, religious instruction, spiritualists, and language itself: English, its bastardized stepchild Indian-English (Babu), Sanskrit and Hindi. Yet the book also offered glimpses of a man seeking to interpret the human condition — despite its obvious shortcomings — as having — if not a higher purpose — at least a positive trajectory. Writing in 2019, reviewers still find new things to say about this 70-year-old novel. A recent academic paper pointed out that until Desani published Hatterr in London, of all places, literary-minded Brits doubted the ability and intellect of non-native English speakers to fully master their language. George Orwell, who had lived and worked in India, was a staunch defender of English written by native Englishmen. He was none too pleased when Hatterr appeared and he provided one of the few negative reviews of its initial printing.
In short order Desani's All About H. Hatterr joined James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake in fleshing out an exotic, polyglot, supra-national novel style which undoubtedly reinvigorated the Mother Tongue. Hatterr had a major influence on contemporary authors such as Saul Bellow and later writers, including Salman Rushdie, both of whom were generous enough to credit Desani's novel as informing their own writing to a greater or lesser degree. The anti-hero Hatterr's hilarious and essentially clueless attempts to reconcile East and West deftly foreshadowed contemporary challenges of maintaining a sense of self, culture and true faith in a pluralistic, secular, rapidly-changing world.
In 1950 Desani's highly personal poetic play Hali was published and also performed on the London stage, as well as broadcast over the BBC. It is difficult to imagine a more different work of fiction. While Hali may have puzzled Hatterr enthusiasts (E.M. Forster called it a "private mythology"), it at least well captured the growing spiritual disquiet — a mid-life crisis? — of the author.
A third book — illustrating the range and scope of Desani's interests, intellect and ambition — was to be a critical biography of Mahatma Gandhi. (Gandhi, the lawyer-ascetic-revolutionary who inspired and guided the Indian movement for independence, had been assassination only a few years before.) The manuscript for this book was lost in a tragic comedy of errors which included a completed manuscript left in a taxi and being unable to decipher the backup copy: a deceased stenographer's shorthand notebook.
In 1951, Desani returned to India to begin an urgent, highly personal search for … what?? That question fully occupied the next decade and a half of his life.
An Intense Spiritual Quest
Having written one madcap sub-continental adventure, Desani proceeded to live another. Partially supported by a well-off cousin, Desani for years scoured India with the zeal of an investigative reporter. He was searching for absolute proof of The Other: proof of the Divine. In a culture with one foot in modernity and the other in ossified tradition, the multitude of family bakti traditions and spiritual craft practitioners was rapidly disappearing. With enormous physical and mental energy, and multiple languages at his disposal, Desani earnestly sought out gurus and other practitioners and — using bravado, sincere devotion, a photographic memory, and a thoroughly disarming charm — collected all manner of white and black magic oral teachings, tantric yantras, mantras, and arcane yogic practices. He spent months, perhaps years, as a devotee of an Indian Goddess and it's guru only to be told upon his achievement that the image he saw was his own mind's creation. In one memorable incident, Desani had himself buried alive, a trick of local yogis, just to see what all the fuss was about. Upon being dug up after the requisite number of minutes below ground his conclusion was that to avoid a panic — which would consume the little available air — you must have total confidence in those above.
Desani recognized early on that the Indian family/ascetic guru/chela system — spanning and, in some cases, melding ancient Hindu and Muslim traditions — was unique among the world spiritual paths. The aging gurus, fakirs and masters Desani encountered saw him as a worthy — or perhaps least unworthy — recipient of their crafts. The challenge of what to do with the gathered materials, the experiences and of drawing communicable conclusions from those years occupied Desani for the rest of his life.
In the early 1960s, in a climax worthy of any grand adventure, Desani embarked on the most rigorous of spiritual disciplines: pursuit of Enlightenment. His first attempt — at a Zen monastery in Japan — was not a success. Subsequently, however, he spend about a year at the Panditãrãma Shwe Taung Gon Sasana Yeiktha center for the practice and study of Theravada Buddhist teachings in Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma). Upon arrival at the monastery, Desani joined a small group of Western practitioners who were receiving initial instructions from the monastery's famous Abbot, Mahasi Sayadaw. The master, in Burmese, began his standard lecture, pointing again and again at a blackboard drawing of a triangle which showed Nibbana (Pali for Nirvana, enlightenment) at the apex. Finally, the lecture ended. 'Questions?' said the translating monk. Desani piped up, "How much?" The monk, shocked, flatly refused to translate the insolent remark. The solemn lecture turned into pandemonium as Sayadaw demanded "What did he say!? What did he say!?" Once a translation was abjectly provided ("He fables, 'What does it cost?' ") the Abbot, according to Desani, roared with laughter.
Soon enough Desani was assigned a long, narrow room where his assigned practice was 20-plus hours a day of walking meditation with the instruction: 'Observe'. Years later Desani told his classes at UT Austin that after a few months he became so sensitive that he could 'feel' sound on his cheek. Eventually the Abbot told him, "You may go." He also authorized Desani to provide instructions in Vipassana meditation. Traditionally, such a dismissal would only be provided to a practitioner who had attained at least the first of the four stages of Nibbana, Buddhist enlightenment. Desani neither claimed nor denied such.
Columns, Short Stories and Academic Papers
At age 53 or so, Desani began writing again for something other than his private journals. Over the next three decades he produced a significant amount of world-class fiction and commentary. Many of his short stories can be found in Hali and Collected Stories, available from McPherson & Co. Other writings, such as his semi-anonymous column " 'Very High' and 'Very Low' ", which ran in the Illustrated Weekly of India in 1966-67 are currently only available in libraries or on microfiche. A number of Desani's powerful essays and lectures, written in the '60s and '70s, are currently unavailable.
In Hatterr, through his spiritual quest, and in his later years as a full professor of philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin, Desani delighted in debunking spiritual teachings that he considered "beneath contempt", a favorite phrase. He was particularly critical of hatha yoga, Shankara Hindu philosophy ("I am Brahma; you are Brahma") and its Westernized characterization that enlightenment is simply a state of mind.
Desani was keenly interested in still little-known Nadi texts, reputedly ancient hand-written palm leaf writings that are the property of a class of Indian astrologers their disciples. He was convinced that he had received readings from Nadi text purveyors which relied entirely on pages written decades, if not hundreds of years, before he was born, and which correctly predicted his name, birthplace (Africa), parents' names, names and descriptions of the women with whom he had been in love, details about his health, his gurus names and other obscure, sensitive facts that seemingly only he could know. If true, Desani wrote in his " 'Very High' and 'Very Low' " column, the words carved into palm leaves call into question the universal expectation of cause leading to effect or — put another way — posits an alternative 'eternal-now' allowing for specific future events to be seen or determined by a few very gifted minds.
Desani came to the University of Texas at Austin in 1967 as a Fulbright exchange scholar. Within a few years he settled in Austin where he shared a full professorship in Philosophy with Raja Rao, another highly-regarded Anglo-Indian writer. Desani taught undergraduate Theravada Buddhism in the Spring; Rao taught undergraduate Mahayana Buddhist in the Fall. Each also offered graduate seminars on related topics. Temperamentally and physically the two men could hardly have been more different, yet they became good friends. Being the late-Sixties, their classes attracted hundreds of students each semester.
As an instructor Desani exuded physical strength and stamina, focus, confidence and a sense of personal achievement which contrasted markedly with the then-in-vogue cool images of contemplative and reticent gurus and Zen masters. He projected a highly competitive — if occasionally combative — persona while acknowledging great respect for genuine spiritual teachers — Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Moorish or Christian — and their crafts. Once in a class a student asked Desani if he believed in the devil. Stopped short for once, Desani paused. "I am very polite to the devil," he finally answered.
His teachings are respectfully summed up as follows: The ancient goals of Vipassana and Enlightenment are real and attainable. However, the quest is difficult. It is not for everyone. Others should simply try to live good, ethical lives.
A recurrent theme in Desani's Theravada Buddhism classes was "thoughts are things" and "there are no small deeds". It seemed a strange life-lesson from a celebrated African-born writer whose achievements had been honored on three other continents. Desani would illustrate this theme with a story of the Buddha, post-enlightenment, walking with his ocher-clad monks through a village. Sitting on the side of the road was a beggar woman, bent and humbled with age and disease. As the colorful entourage passed by the old woman looked up a caught a glimpse of the radiant Buddha. Reflectively, she folded her hands, bowed her head ... and died. The procession stopped. As a crowd gathered around the body, the Buddha commented that her death, at a precise mental moment of focused selfless reverence, caused her to be reborn as a devi, a beautiful celestial goddess.
By acting with compassion towards or thinking kindly of a stranger, an insect or an enemy, the mind is invariably and immediately calmed. Future mental moments are born from previous ones, each springing to life biased by its preceding thought pattern. Thus the "small act", the "kind thought", the generous mental moment is its own, immediate, reward — and a first step on a path to more better mental moments — regardless of any next-life benefit or karmic consequence. And that immediate benefit — or blessing, as Desani might call it — comes whether you are a beggar or a major player on the world stage.
It is surprisingly easy to find examples of small acts of courage, kindness and generosity leading to remarkable results in this life. Another example. And another. Desani's penetrating insights that a) there are no small deeds, that b) thoughts are things, and that, c) sincere, energetic practice of any faith or religion can lead to personal peace — conclusions from his decades of intense mental culture and researching religious practices worldwide — is an under-appreciated contribution to world religious dialog.
At UT, Desani published a number of papers. To augment existing philosophic literature related to Buddhism, he assembled and had published The Yellow Text of Theravada Buddhism as the textbook for his classes. This anthology, with his several added notes, properly positioned the course as an educational/philosophical inquiry. Desani also taught courses in mental yoga, the Bhagavad Gita and on the Irish philosopher P.G. Bowen's two books: The Occult Way and Sayings of the Ancient One.
Post-65, Desani became an American citizen; he qualified for a driver's license about the same time. He loved the independence afforded him by his '58 blue Thunderbird whose upkeep fell to Alan Smith, a former student and talented mechanic and photographer. His daily ritual included lengthy phone calls with close associates, a drive to the campus to pick up his mail, a courtly bow to the Philosophy Department secretaries and home again to work on his writings, revisions, and plans, as well as to prepare for his monthly full moon prayer day and less rigorous daily spiritual duties.
Through his years in Austin, Desani befriended and was aided by several dozen students, former students, and several of adult women who, as members of the local Theosophy Society, initially met Desani by auditing his classes. Soon enough, one of the ladies, Ida Maberry, an elderly wealthy local ranch owner, offered Desani a rental house she owned in Austin Lake Estates. He paid only nominal rent. Over the next several years the home was greatly improved by helpers, including the construction of a sound-proof prayer room. When Ms. Maberry died unexpectedly before she could make good on a promise to will the home to Desani, he had to move out on short notice. Another student, G.E., stepped in to provide shelter for a few months. Finally Blossom Burns, a well-known Austin artist and a patron of the UT Philosophy Department offered Professor, as she called him, a small art studio on her property. He lived there for the next 20 years.
In 1994, Naseem Khan, a journalist for the UK's Sunday Independent, visited Desani at his home/studio. Khan provided readers with an accurate description:
…You are just now in Austin, Texas, and your air-conditioned coach is drawing up on a quiet, wooded side road. Beside you, higgledy-piggledy steps waver up a bank to the secluded, ground floor apartment of Govindas Vishnoodas Desani. … Desani's home for the past 20 or so years fits the begetter of Hatterr. Like the book, it is an amalgam, a mish-mash and gloriously impure. It has the air of a warren. All on one level, taking up the whole of a ground floor, it gives no impression of true scale. For Desani has divided and sub-divided [the place] into a series of small interconnected cubbyholes, all crammed with ephemera, memorabilia, piles of magazines, devotional objects, books on everything from Chinese medicine to American law and knick-knacks, both curious and gimcrack. "I like to collect little things. They please me," Desani said. "That, too, is a kind of worship…."
Desani's 600-square-foot bungalow comprised a kitchen, sitting room, prayer room, bedroom, entry way and den. Walls were covered in homemade bookcases punctuated by Yantras and artworks depicting Indian deities. Here and there Desani would dangle the stray ornament or bracelet. The house was often filled with flowers brought by former students and friends; the odors mingled with the heady aromas of curries and incense. The curator of the Austin Japanese Garden in Austin's Zilker Park gave his permission for students to pick lotuses for Desani's special full moon ceremony which involved a day of private silence, fasting, prayer and meditation.
On most weekends Desani would play host to those who came to help with his endless projects. The to-do list might range from proofreading a new article or manuscript to re-organizing his library to 'improving' an object found in a junk shop by spraying it gold. At the end of the day tired helpers would crowd Desani's tiny sitting room, wolf down one of his out-of-this-world curries punctuated by Lay's Potato Chips ("a very healthy food"), and listed raptly as he shared one of his life lessons. Desani rarely joined in the meal.
In some cases, volunteer help and support was provided for more than 30 years and included, all told, many thousands of hours spent aiding Desani with his writings, his accommodations, procuring food and flowers, his legal and literary affairs and, finally, arranging for and providing financial help, companionship, and care to an aging, ailing friend and mentor. The group — once as close-knit and dysfunctional as any family — are today strangers again.
Desani spent his last few years in failing health, cared for by the ever-shrinking group of former students and 24-hour home care nurses, all Americans. He died at 91, far from his Summit-City, in a private home near Ft. Worth, Texas.
An Incomplete Legacy
Desani's hope that an anthology of his writings — fiction and non-fiction remains unrealized. The Rissala, as he titled it, was submitted in the early-'80s to one of his publishers, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. By then, however, the market for collected works of living writers — never large — was tiny; Robert Giroux, describing himself as 'abashed', regretfully declined.
Similarly, an autobiographical account of Desani's spiritual inquiries and quests — to be based on his voluminous Indian Journals — was also "not willed," as Desani might have put it. (A former student and helper, John Hinds, has provided Some Further Thoughts on Rissala on his desani.net site. Mr. Hinds' comprehensive blog contains reminiscences of his time with Desani, including transcribed notes from conversations, scanned programs, letters, and so forth. Of particular interest is his Note from Meeting with Desani in which Desani apparently shared his personal philosophy regarding the interplay between consciousness and concentration; the meditative life; and being a householder.)
In 2007 the Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin, received Desani's papers, including the original manuscript of All About Mr. Hatterr and his journals. Aged, handwritten palm-leaf Nadi texts that Desani had carbon-date-tested in hopes of proving that his birth (and thus a specific, detailed future event) had been foretold were gifted to Boston University in care of his good friend and academic sponsor John Silber, then BU president (now deceased). Results of the carbon-dating tests, conducted about 1979, were inconclusive. UNICEF is believed to be the only beneficiary named in Desani's will; the organization retains world copyright to his writings.
Much of Desani's property at the time of his death remains unaccounted for. For example, in the first years of his teaching at UT (1966-67), a semester's worth of lectures on Theravada Buddhism and Yoga were taped. Similarly, the disposition of Desani's unique library of artifacts from his spiritual inquiries, as well as numerous related drawings and illustrations, is unknown.
Shortly after his death at 91, Desani's collection of colorful gemstone rings was professionally appraised and sold piecemeal to former students. The modest proceeds of a lifetime's quest for perfection, truth and beauty went to UNICEF.
Editor's Note: Readers are cordially invited to send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Emails of general interest will be posted. Over the years we hope to provide further insight into G.V. Desani's teachings and offer examples of his world-class fiction, commentary and lectures. Our goal is simply to chronicle, as fully as is permitted, the legacy of a man whose teachings and writings have, if anything, greater relevance today than they did during his lifetime.
The desani.org site is dedicated to his memory as well as that of Blossom Burns, Ila Maberry and Alan Smith.